Twice the warmth, three times the stories: Heating the old-fashioned way

I once sliced my leg open with my chainsaw. According to the emergency room doctor who sewed me up, I missed the femoral artery by about one inch.

In another ill-fated woodland encounter, I brought down a section of dead trunk square on top of my head while trying to drop a "widow maker" (a detached tree leaning against another tree). The impact cracked the helmet I was wearing and knocked me to the ground.

Notice I said "helmet," not "skull." A close call the previous year sent me shopping for some noggin protection, the faithful use of which probably saved my life. As for the bloodshed, I made a vow, as I was driving to the hospital with a handkerchief knotted around the wound in my leg, tourniquet-style, to never cut wood again without my Kevlar chaps (the Kevlar chaps that were hanging from a nail in my garage when the chain of my saw broke skin). I've kept that vow – mainly to protect my hide, but also to spare my dignity. I could never live down the embarrassment of having to answer the question, "So, where were your chaps this time…?"

What doesn't kill you slaps you upside the head and gets your attention.

So now when I stalk firewood – a pursuit I find eminently satisfying – I'm an OSHA poster boy in my chaps, helmet, eye and ear protection. But my most important survival tool has nothing to do with gear; it's being able to recognize a dangerous situation and having the wisdom to walk away from it. In firewood cutting, as in all things, a misguided ego can get you into trouble.

Employing reasonable precautions and a healthy respect for what a ton of falling wood can do, harvesting firewood can become more than just a chore. I see it as my winter hobby – perfect, in my opinion, because it is both satisfying and productive. Heating my house with a wood burner, I use less than half the propane I would use without it. And with propane averaging around $4 per gallon in the Midwest this winter, that's very good for the bottom line.

Cabin fever? The pursuit of firewood is a perfect excuse to venture into the winter woods, which, barring a 20-below wind chill, is a pleasant, peaceful place to be, as long as you dress for it. For one thing, there are no mosquitoes in January,

Exercise? For me, it's a simple equation: I could join a gym for, say, $100 a month and spend my time and energy riding a bike going nowhere, or I can get out into the fresh air with a saw and a splitting maul, and work up a sweat while actually producing something of value.

The old saying is that wood warms you twice, but that’s a gross underestimate. It warms you when you cut it, when you split it, when you haul it and when you stack it. It warms you when you see your stash growing with each new load.

It warms you just knowing that regardless of what happens to the power lines and gas supplies – those things beyond your control – you'll never go to bed cold.

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Brian Urbancic
Sun, 02/16/2014 - 7:42am
Brandon: I enjoyed reading your comments about the indirect benefits of firewood. But you missed one other important benefit. Cutting down trees warms us all by contributing to global warming. On a less snarky note, smoke from burning wood not only has more carcinogens than tobacco smoke, it also is far dirtier than coal. This is just one of several articles I've read recently about the negative impacts of using wood and other biomass as fuel: my mind, after reviewing the costs and benefits of burning wood, I've decided to forgo the fireplace. Thank you.
John Schneider
Sun, 02/16/2014 - 11:35am
Regarding your one point, Brandon - I know of no firewood cutters who take live trees.
John Schneider
Sun, 02/16/2014 - 11:36am
Sorry … BRIAN.
Terry Bobzien
Mon, 02/17/2014 - 12:13am
Brian, I was ready to tear you up about your criticism of John's choice of heat source. I like the article you linked. It parallels parts of "The God Species" by Mark Lynas. (Not a book about religion, but about what humans need to do to save the planet.) It addresses concerns about nuclear as a carbon-neutral energy source in chapter 7. Check this link about efficiency of modern woodburners. With efficiencies approaching 90% and minimal smoke and ash emission, harvesting dead trees still makes sense to me. Will we heat a home with the wood or let it biodegrade in nature releasing heat with no benefit to human existence? My reading tells me that a given weight of wood will release identical amounts of carbon, whether released by combustion or by biological process, the difference being hours or years. Over the long timeframe, same carbon released as co2. FWIW, I don't burn wood, but appreciate John's hard work to save money, stay in shape, harvest a renewable resource, and save a bit of the consumption of the far more destructive burning of fuel oil or propane. Renewables, solar, wind, and nuclear may be long-term solutions, but compared to fracking and oil sands, wood is a gentle treatment of the environment.
Terry Bobzien
Mon, 02/17/2014 - 12:24am
Re: the first sentence of the comment, my initial reaction was hostile, but after scanning the article, I appreciate the additional viewpoint. Please take my response as friendly and directed toward extending the discussion.
Pam Nelson
Sun, 02/16/2014 - 8:09am
Michigan author Mardi Jo Link makes the same point about chopping wood warming you twice in her book Bootstrapper. A single mother with three boys on a farm near Traverse City, she had no money for fuel and she was afraid to use a chainsaw, so she and the boys chopped wood for the fireplace. They also chopped down a small white pine as a Christmas tree. I think that you would enjoy this book.
John Schneider
Sun, 02/16/2014 - 11:37am
Thanks for the suggestion, Pam.
Terry Bobzien
Sun, 02/16/2014 - 7:35pm
The reading that I've done shows that the carbon release is identical whether in the short term by burning or in the long term by natural decay. Dead wood will oxidize, fast or slow. It is a renewable resource.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Mon, 02/17/2014 - 11:50am
Terry, another way to say this is the carbon sequestration is the same; whether a renewable tree grows sequestering carbon from the air or from the nutrients from natural decay in the soil. It is a renewable resource. It takes from 5 to 40 years on the average for a firewood tree to replace itself in my woods, all the while absorbing carbon. There is no net increase in atmospheric carbon, if that is supposed to be a synonym for global warming. On Dec 31, 2013 total sea ice in the world reached a maximum, the maximum ever in recorded history. That does not indicate that global warming is even true. Several of the coldest years in history have been in the last ten years, that does not indicate "global warming" either.
Darlene Baker
Sat, 03/15/2014 - 9:06pm
I heat with wood and have heated with wood 20 out of the last 23 years. I LOVE WOOD HEAT. There is nothing like it. I don't have to listen to the noisy furnace running. Don't have to wrap up in a blanket because it's below 0 outside and even though the furnace is running almost without stopping it's about 60 in the house. I hope and stay in good enough shape to burn wood until I die. Just saying.